The Ten Twig Meditation

As even the largest tree ends in twigs, your fingers are the smallest appendages branching from your body. Since our very beginnings our hands and fingers have been our main tools for survival, gesturing, making things, using those things, counting, writing, and now typing.

We can also use our fingers to help us meditate. Buddhists and Hindus use “mudras” or hand positions to aid in their meditations. So does the Gaian Solar Meditation. But I had never seen a meditation that actively utilizes fingers in the meditation process. That is, until a friend introduced me to a new meditation over the summer, called The Five Attitudes—one I’ve incorporated into my daily meditation practice since. It is a simple meditation, helpful, and certainly worth sharing. Essentially, you sit in zazen or cross-legged with your hands in your lap, and hold each finger as you breathe in and breathe out. Each finger represents a different negative emotion, which you release as your breathe and attend to these emotions.

This stems from the Japanese practice of Jin Shin Jyutsu, ‘the art of self-healing.’ The founder argued that energy flows ‘begin or end in each of our fingers.’ One short book on the subject even notes that “the founder, himself, practiced finger holding in distress, and this saved him from a life-threatening situation” (p. 42).

Now, I’m not one who accepts easily that which hasn’t been scientifically studied. Then again, I have gotten Osteopathic Manual Therapy for my back for years and the releasing of fascial tissue and realigning of misaligned vertebrate works, as does the placebo effect of thinking it works. And as the science shows, there’s nothing wrong with a good placebo effect to get your body to fix itself. So whether this meditation is really helping to release fascial tissue or put pressure on your nerves in your fingers, or just a way to anchor your meditation psychologically, helping you to attend to different emotions, isn’t so important. One way or another it might work for you.*

Below is a Gaian version of this meditation—not surprisingly, I can’t help but add ecocentric elements to everything I learn—and with two hands, it feels natural to focus one of your hands (I chose my left) on yourself—that is, the holobiont made up of your cells, bacteria, viruses, and other symbionts—and the other hand on how you relate to the larger holobiont, Gaia, that you, all human society, and all life are part of. As you hold each of your ten fingers, breathe slowly, trying to release the emotion you’re focused on (taking five breaths per finger will come out to about a ten minute meditation). However, if you feel really stuck on a specific emotion, linger there longer, or even focus the rest of your meditation there. You can come back to the other fingers in a future session. Read on for an overview of what each of the fingers represents.

The Thumb: Fear and Worry

Start with your left thumb, and channel your worries. We’re constantly worrying about something—mistakes we made yesterday, things coming up tomorrow, rather than being focused on the now. Think about the worries you’re dealing with—fear of not making ends meet; fear that your work is not useful; fear that you are unloved, and so on—and let those go.

We also worry about the Earth, so let go of those worries with your right thumb: worries that Gaia is dying; that the fires and hurricanes are coming or that they’re here to stay; that millions of people and animals are going to die; that we’re acting too late; or that it’s too late to act at all. Whatever worries keep you up and your heart beating faster, let them go. 

Pearls Before Swine by Stephan Pastis captures the many levels of worry we grapple with perfectly.

The Pointer Finger: Expectations

Too often we obsess over unrealistic expectations: of ourselves, of others—including and especially our families, and of the world. I know things are bad, I should fight harder. I should do more, give up more. What I’m giving is not enough. With your left pointer finger, inhaling and exhaling, let go of these expectations.

We also expect much of others. Let go, too, of the expectations that you have for your family, your coworkers, your friends. Just embrace them as they are. And about people in general: why aren’t others worrying about the future? Making sacrifices in how they live? Why aren’t politicians prioritizing climate change? Why do some deny it even exists? Why is profit put over people and the planet? Let those expectations to do ‘right’ go. And let go your expectations of Gaia, too. That Gaia will continue to provide stability and the foundation for civilization. Gaia is under stress now and wildfires, hurricanes, droughts, and floods are now part of the way Gaia will respond. Breathe in and out and let go of the expectation of a calm journey into the future.

The Middle Finger: Anger

Now the middle finger, which, not surprisingly, at least in this culture, is associated with anger. Hold your left middle finger, and let go of the anger you’re feeling toward yourself. For not being strong enough, disciplined enough, calm enough, happy enough, or whatever traits about yourself upset you. For not being caring enough, kind enough, giving enough to others. Let all that go.

And with your right finger, let go of all your anger toward others. Of your family, for not being helpful enough, or anticipating your needs, for being too attentive, for whatever it is that bothers you. And especially, let go of the anger you feel for those that have exploited and continue to exploit others and Gaia. There is a time to be angry toward the perpetrators of injustice and act for justice, but right now, let go of that anger. Accept that, in their world and in their minds, they’re doing nothing wrong. That they are on the side of right. Breathe in, breathe out. Let go of your anger. And let go of any anger toward Gaia. Gaia does nothing out of spite—and at the same time does nothing to be kind. Gaia simply is. And responds—including to rising temperatures in ways that will inevitably hurt us and our loved ones. Gaia is not vindictive, but that does not mean sometimes we’re not angry at Gaia and how Gaia operates. So breathe that in, and out, and let that go.

The Ring Finger: Grief

Grief is a finger many of us could hold the entire meditation. With your left hand, breathe in the grief for loved ones lost, for life changes that were hard on you, for regrets you can’t let go. And breathe out. And breathe in the grief for those who you will lose—the worry, sadness, the “anticipatory grief” for an aging parent, for a sick spouse, even a healthy child who we fear we’ll lose one day, just because our minds can’t help but go there. Breathe in and out and let that go.

And with your right hand, breathe in all the grief for the damage to Gaia—the lost cultures and peoples, the lost habitats, the lost species—never again to roam the planet or play their roles in the great web of relationships of Gaia. Breathe these in and out and let them go. And finally, let go of your anticipatory grief of the future destruction of Gaia, the loss of the coral reefs, the tropical forests, the permafrost and ice caps, the river in your town, your town altogether. Breathe this grief in and let it out.

The Little Finger: Pretense

Now with your left little finger, let’s consider pretense, that is, when we live untrue to ourselves, especially to fit in. Buying and wearing certain things, going certain places, eating certain things—even if we don’t enjoy them. Holding a certain job, participating in certain activities. Even the simple dissonance of thinking we need to be serious all the time because the state of the world is so dire. You can still laugh, have fun, joke around—if that’s who you are. Feel the conflict between who you are and who you pretend to be and let it go. Another time you can address these discords, but for now, let them go. Breathe and let go of your pretenses, and allow yourself to be true to yourself.

Now with your right little finger, let go of the idea that you are separate from the Earth. That we can follow society’s rules even when they conflict with science’s and the Earth’s. That helping Gaia is a choice. Let go too of the idea that our current form of helping is actually helping. Is my recycling, my solar panels or hybrid car, the cleanups that I attend (and drive to), truly helping Gaia or signals of my ecoconsciousness—for others, or to assuage my own guilt? That’s a painful feeling. Breathe it in and let it go.

The Palm: Harmony

Finally, put the fingers of your right hand into your left palm. Harmonize yourself with your whole self. Recognize that your body, which is comprised of your cells, viruses, bacteria, fungi, is a community of life, co-existing. Sometimes it strays to ill-health, an element of the whole comes out of balance, not with malicious intent, but as it strives to survive and thrive—as it overprioritizes its own benefit even at the harm of the collective self. Inhale and exhale and harmonize your mind, body, and breath.**

And with your right palm: harmonize yourself with your larger self: the whole world, Gaia. Let go of the idea that you are separate from Gaia. We, too, have become out of balance. Like a virus, preoccupied with our own growth and reproduction to the extent that we cannot fathom that we are killing our host, and in the turn kill ourselves. The virus does not do this maliciously, nor do we. Humans tend to think only of themselves, which due to cultural conditioning stops with our physical bodies, or sometimes our families and friends (and rarely beyond that). But by extending our understanding—that the self includes all of society, all of life, Gaia, that mind shift, that harmonization, opens us up to true healing.

Putting it all together

Remember, it’s fine if you focus just on a few fingers, or run out of time before going through all your fingers. I just held my thumb one day, as anxiety was running high and I kept getting distracted—including by a squirrel who came within a foot of me (turns out I was near one of his seed stashes). But the squirrel was patient, checking his expectations of this two-legged creature encroaching on his turf. And I hope you, too, will be patient with yourselves and give this meditation a try. And if you do, let me know how it goes.

*I also remember reading in an osteopathy book that strategic pressure on fingertips can actually anesthetize other parts of the body—even to the point of doing dental work without anesthetic. Unfortunately I can’t find that source but if true, that reinforces the powerful neural connections of fingertips.

**In karate we call these three sanchin: which translates to the three conflicts and refers to the conflict to unify body, mind, and breath.

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